It hasn’t always been an easy run, but Tiger football has come a long way since its birth

Tigers ball! TU recovers a fumble during a home game in the mid-1970s.

In the summer of 1968, Towson University’s football team lacked some key elements—chief among them players and a coach. The school had started the program in the spring, but faster than a Terrance West juke, the man hired to build it had resigned. Lacrosse coach Carl Runk was among those tasked with filling the position.

“They needed a coach and I was on the selection committee,” he recalls. “So I was selected.”

Carl Runk actually was TU’s second head football coach, but he was the first to coach the team in a game.

He had but one assistant, whom he’d gotten to know while both were teachers in Arizona. Together, Runk and Phil Albert set out to find some ballplayers.

“We had a bunch of names on three-by-five cards, and we started calling those guys and seeing who was serious,” Albert says. “Actually, 100 guys showed up, but it quickly got down to about 40. Some guys thought they wanted to play—it sounded like a good idea—but about 60 percent decided they were going to redirect their energies.”

The Tigers played a hodgepodge schedule against jayvee teams and two-year programs in preparation for their first NCAA-sanctioned season in 1969. The roster was peppered with players like John Yingling ’71, a safety who had transferred in from a junior college.

“It was a great adventure,” he says. “Every day was different. The first year [in Division III] our record was 4-4-1, and we lost those four games by a total of 13 points. It was baby steps, but we moved forward.”

Fifty years later, the baby is all grown up. Today, TU football is almost unrecognizable as compared to its humble beginnings. It competes in an elite conference in the NCAA’s second-highest division. Its games are played in a gleaming on-campus stadium named for a golden-armed football hall of famer. It’s won conference titles and played for national ones, sent 10 players to the NFL, and produced professionals in business, education, law enforcement and countless other fields.

Like any 50-year-old, there have been bumps along the way. Until recently funding has been a seemingly constant struggle. Wins and losses have ebbed and flowed, and fan support has not always matched the dedication of the players, coaches and staff.

But those days seem like ancient history to Coach Rob Ambrose ’93, who is just the fourth man to lead the program. That’s a staggering record of consistency in a college football landscape that churns through coaches with unsentimental fervor.

Ambrose doesn’t often stop for moments of reflection or contemplation—he’s got film to break down—but during homecoming last year he found himself looking out a window in a stairwell of the football complex as he made his way to the field.

“I saw thousands of alums having a great time, tailgating, loving life, proud to be here, and it was heartwarming,” he says. “That’s what this school is growing toward.”

We should all envy TU football. At 50, its best days still lie ahead.

Movin’ On Up

One has a hard time imagining living legend Nick Saban, coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, doing his team’s laundry, but cleaning the whites was just one of the chores Runk and Albert slogged through during those early years at TU.

“It wasn’t like we had somebody else to do it,” says Runk, 82, who’s not complaining.

“We had to mark the field, cut the grass. We were responsible for everything.”

In addition to their coaching duties, both men were faculty members who taught physical education courses. The team practiced and played its games on a field just south of Burdick Hall, near where the University Union now stands. Its first win was a 53-16 thumping of Frostburg State, and after going .500 in its inaugural season, it posted a 6-2 record in 1970. Among the players on that team was a scrappy defender named Gordy Combs.

“I’ve got a picture of him in my mind when he’s a little pigeon-toed bugger standing there with his fists down, and he’s got them very intense eyes,” Runk recalls. “He’s ready to knock the heck out of somebody. That’s the kind of youngster you want. It never hurt him to work hard.”

After a disappointing season in 1971, Runk stepped aside to focus on lacrosse. (His 262 Division I victories in the sport rank 15th all-time.) Albert took over and started constructing a program with an eye toward the future. With no recruiting budget, he drove his own car all over the state, sometimes visiting as many three schools in a day.

He began signing the kind of players who would fit the Towson mold for years to come. Overlooked and underestimated, they were overachievers who played unselfishly.

Success came sooner than expected. In 1974, TU—for the first, and to this point last time in program history—didn’t lose a game.

“We started talking about what we can do, not what we can’t do,” Albert says. “I just continued along on those themes of just believing. I don’t think there was a guy on the team who if you asked him when the season started, or even midway through the season do you think we’ll go undefeated thought that would happen. It was just a bunch of guys working together—and bingo! We had an undefeated season.”

Two years later the Tigers played for the Division III national championship, losing the Stagg Bowl to St. John’s University on a last-second field goal. In 1978, TU went 5-0 in the new Towson Stadium, and the following season the program moved up to Division II. Fruitful years followed, as the Tigers qualified for the NCAA playoffs—which featured just eight teams then, as opposed to 24 today—in 1983, ’84 and ’86.

Hernando John Mejia ’84 was a typical Tiger in those days. A native of Queens, he migrated down I-95 to a place he knew little about, and hasn’t regretted the decision for one minute since.

“All the guys in New York used to say, ‘Towson who?’” he says. “But we began to develop a name for ourselves. We were always the underdog. We always had a chip on our shoulder.”

Now a businessman and television host in Florida, Mejia still can hear Albert barking his catch phrase—“great day to be alive”—during 100-degree practices in August.

“We started talking about what we can do, not what we can’t do.”—Coach Phil Albert

“When you play for someone like Coach Albert, who cares about the players and loves the players, it instills a lot of strength and character,” he says. “You don’t realize the lessons during the times there, but it’s always a source of strength and foundation to refer back to in everyday life when things aren’t going so well.”

TU jumped divisions again in 1987, this time to its current I-AA (known today as Football Championship Subdivision). Its first win over one of the big boys was a memorable 17-14 upset at Maine.

“They were ranked two or three in the country at that point in time,” says Rodney Smith ’90, a nose guard on that team. “After the game we snuck out and went to a club. We faced the heat for that, but that was kind of a Super Bowl moment for us. We lived like rock stars for half a night.”

That Smith even set foot in New England is a minor miracle. Despite being a Maryland native, he’d never even been to Ocean City.

“Towson opened up a whole different [world] for a young black kid from inner-city Baltimore, from The Wire,” says Smith, who works in human resources. “People
like me wind up in jail or dead. And I’ve got a lot of friends that are like that. For some reason Towson saw something in a lot of us like that. Towson gives people like us a chance.”

Over the next few years wins were few and far between. While schools could award a maximum of 63 scholarships at the I-AA level, TU only handed out around 35, Albert says. It was a predicament he likens to “making bricks without straw.”

Rumblings around campus that the administration was considering dropping football began getting louder. A November 1990 story in The Towerlight recapping a 17-7 victory over Howard captured the embattled feeling surrounding the program perfectly.

“With the football program facing the possibility of future suspension and the defense playing without its two leading tacklers and starting cornerback, the Tigers faced up to adversity—and gave it a kick in the pants,” assistant sports editor Mat Schlissel wrote.

“‘I never forget what (victory) tastes like,’ said TSU coach Phil Albert. ‘Psychologically, it (possible suspension) has been hard on our players. They needed to look at each other and rally.’ The Tigers also sported a new look on their uniform. They removed the ‘T’ from their helmet and replaced it with STF—Save Towson Football—a slogan that speaks for itself.”

After another lean year in 1991, Albert returned to the faculty and the reins were handed to one of his assistants, the man whose eyes and attitude Coach Runk finds so hard to forget.

New Homes

The clock displayed all zeros, and the scoreboard favored the other guys. With apologies to Yogi Berra, TU’s 1992 game against Northeastern really was over.

Or was it?

A back-and-forth battle had come down to the last play. After Northeastern took the lead with only a few seconds left, it kicked off to TU, which proceeded to execute a series of laterals in a desperate attempt to score a touchdown with no time left. But when Northeastern’s players prematurely ran onto the field, the referees threw a flag and awarded TU one untimed down.

“It was trips right, and I had Mark Orlando as a single receiver to the left,” says quarterback Dan Crowley. “We were going to let Mark beat his guy on a slant route, but when the ball was snapped the position of the cornerback changed and Mark ran a fade to the corner. I lobbed the ball back in the corner, and that was it. I got smacked in my teeth, looked up and everybody’s celebrating.”

Dan Crowley threw for 81 touchdowns during his illustrious career.

The win, covered on ESPN, was one of the biggest in Gordy Combs’s debut season as head coach. The first former TU player to coach the Tigers, he led the team to a 5-5 record that year before posting back-to-back 8-2 campaigns.

Crowley was responsible for a lot of those early wins. Lightly recruited out of high school, he chose TU because it offered the best chance to play immediately. One of the two other schools that was interested in him—Northeastern—ended up going with another QB.

An All-American in 1993, Crowley left school early to pursue what became a successful professional football career in Canada and Italy. He earned his degree in 2001, and now works as TU’s senior associate director of athletics.

Following his departure, TU dropped football scholarships before joining the Patriot League, which awards aid based on need, in 1997. It wasn’t until 2004, when the program moved to the Atlantic 10 (now the Colonial Athletic Association) that it became fully funded.

Along the way there were signs that brighter days were on the horizon. In 2002, Baltimore Colts great Johnny Unitas was on hand to christen the new Towson Stadium, which had undergone a $32 million renovation. (No one could have known that a week later he’d pass away, or that the stadium would soon bear his name.)

Following the 2008 season, Combs ’72 ’75, was relieved of his duties. He’d played two seasons for TU (and redshirted another), served as assistant coach for 19 and head coach for 17.

“Not many people can go through that path at one school for 39 years,” says Combs, who’s been doing color commentary for Tigers’ radio broadcasts since 2013.

“The players made the program. We had so many, not just good players, but good people.”

Forward Progress

After two seasons, new head coach Rob Ambrose, Dan Crowley’s former backup, had a grand total of three wins.

“I remember thinking, ‘Are we ever going to win again?’” says Spiro Morekas ’83, the Tigers’ play-by-play announcer. “We didn’t look like we were getting any better.”

But amidst the losses, Ambrose saw glimmers of hope. In the wreckage of a 1-10 season in 2010 TU lost a squeaker to No. 7 James Madison. Despite the heartbreaking defeat, Ambrose could sense his team’s increased competitiveness. Picked to finish last in the CAA in 2011, the “Turnaround Tigers” won the conference title to become the only school in NCAA history to participate in the Division I, II and III playoffs.

TU opened the 2013 season with a 33-18 victory over Connecticut—the school’s first and lone win over a Football Bowl Subdivision team. But the best was yet to come.

Aided by a veteran offensive line that cleared huge holes for him all season, running back Terrance West led the nation in rushing with 2,509 yards. The Tigers rolled into the playoffs, beating Fordham and Eastern Illinois in a snowstorm to clinch a spot in the semifinals. On the red turf at Eastern Washington, backup quarterback Connor Frazier ’15, replacing injured starter Peter Athens ’14, orchestrated a last-second comeback to clinch a 35-31 victory and a spot in the championship game.

While a title was not to be, the team’s stirring run through the tournament has left a lasting impact on the program. It

Terrance West notched 115 yards rushing and two touchdowns in the 2013 FCS semifinal win at Eastern Washington.

can be seen on fall Saturdays, as thousands gather to grill brats and toss around the pigskin in parking lots before the games. It’s evident in the talent of the players that Ambrose, through his magnetic personality and unmistakable love for the institution, has been able to recruit. And it’s apparent in the satisfaction former players and coaches take in seeing the growth of a team they helped build.

“I’m proud to see how far they’ve come,” Runk says. “We fought like hell those first years to get where they are now. We’re all a part of the program, and it’s a beautiful situation.”

By Mike Unger